The debate over whether games can ever be considered a legitimate art form has been raging since the days of Manic Miner. Now Ori and the Will of the Wisps is the latest title to try to tip the balance. Lee Henaghan travelled to San Francisco for a hands-on preview.
Can video games ever be art? It’s a question that’s been batted back and forth for decades but, according to Roger Ebert at least, the answer is a resounding no. In a famous 2010 blog post, the granddaddy of modern media critics rejected the idea out of hand: “No video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form,” he pronounced.
Ironically, and unfortunately, Ebert died three years later, right on the cusp of the era that saw gaming reach new artistic heights. If he’d lived a few months longer to see The Last of Us hit the same cinematic production levels as the movies he dedicated his life to reviewing, maybe he might have reconsidered his dismissive declaration.
It’s not just big budget blockbusters that have shifted society’s perception of the industry. Quirky indie titles such as Journey or Flower and highly metaphorical narratives like Senua’s Sacrifice have redefined what games are capable of. But if we take Ebert’s definition of art as “the process of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions”, Ori and the Will of the Wisps ticks every box, and then some.
The sequel to 2015’s BAFTA award winning Ori and the Blind Forest, Will of the Wisps is difficult to label as anything else than a work of interactive art. From the hand-drawn sprites and brush-stroked backdrops to the sweeping score and moments of heartbreak and joy, this is one of those rare games that feels like a genuine rebuttal to Ebert’s edict.
I had the chance to play through the game’s opening acts (around two to three hours, depending on how long you spend soaking up the scenery) at a preview event in San Francisco last month, before I had to be gently persuaded to please put the controller down and leave the venue so everyone could go home. Like Blind Forest, it opens with a heart-wrenching scene of separation, where you lose a loved one before being plunged into a beautifully hostile labyrinth full of danger and delight.
It’s odd that almost 40 years after the release of Metroid and Castlevania, we are still yet to come up with a better term than ‘Metroidvania’ to describe these kinds of games. Derivative as it may be, it’s easy to trace a line directly through the generations from those roots to this fresh branch. The core gameplay loop remains essentially unchanged – a blend of exploration and experimentation, as you gradually develop new abilities which open up previously unreachable areas, growing stronger every step of the way.
Ori is the perfect protagonist for a game where the environment is the real star of the show. Devoid of colour, mainly mute and brought to life through subtle but expressive animation, this endearing rabbit-elf hybrid is a blank canvas deliberately designed to highlight the world around you. As you’d expect, the map is slowly revealed as you explore but it soon becomes apparent that the scope and scale has been significantly increased. Developers Moon Studio have confirmed that Will of the Wisps is more than three times larger than Blind Forest – no mean feat when you consider the sheer size of the first game. It also feels deeper, with flat backdrops replaced by a fully-3D aesthetic.
Combat has also received a major overhaul. Gone are the orb-based attacks which made battles in the Blind Forest seem strangely detached and distant, replaced by a new spirit sword and a much more meaty feel to enemy encounters. The progression system has been completely revamped too, ditching the traditional RPG-like skill tree in favour of equippable shards which can be found scattered around the world or purchased using in-game currency. These allow you to swap out perks and abilities on the fly depending on the situation or your preferred play style.
This results in an altogether more fluid experience – you might use a shard to boost Ori’s attack damage for a particularly challenging boss battle before dropping it for another which allows you to stick to walls to negotiate a tricky platform section. There are areas where you’ll be encouraged to use certain shards but it’s all ultimately optional, giving you a real sense of developmental freedom when compared to being funneled down another narrow skill tree branch to unlock to skill you need.
Shards also allow the player to modify the game’s difficulty level. Blind Forest may have been easy on the eye but it was renowned for being one of the toughest platformers of its generation. Playing through it again recently reminded me of just how demanding the escape sections were, requiring pixel-perfect jumps, ninja-like reflexes and Dark Souls levels of patience. Judging from the early sections of the sequel, the difficulty definitely seems to have been dialed down. Checkpoints are now automatic and there is an option to skip boss battles or escape runs if they’re proving too frustrating. Purists will almost certainly grumble, but the end result is a more accessible game which can be cranked up a notch should you so desire.
The game’s narrative is revealed through brief encounters with NPCs, with no lengthy cut-scenes or scrolls of conversational text. There’s a familiar emphasis on environmental storytelling, with the world around you changing subtly to convey what is happening to key characters. Music plays a huge part too, adapting dynamically as you fight off enemies or unlock new areas. Composer Gareth Coker, who won several awards for his work on Ori and the Blind Forest, returns to blend familiar themes and motifs with an entirely new score which seems certain to win similar accolades.
But is it art, I hear you ask? Well, if you combine the animation, character design, storytelling and orchestral score, each element lovingly crafted by artists at the top of their game, why should the end result be considered anything less than the sum of its parts? Roger Ebert was one of the most influential critics of all time – arguably laying the foundations for how we analyse and assess modern media – but he was dead wrong about video games.
Ori and the Will of The Wisps is released on Xbox and PC on March 11.
Lee Henaghan travelled to San Francisco courtesy of Xbox.